lStanding on a grassy slope, I look out over the three-mile curve of Rhossili Bay, on the southwestern tip of the Gower Peninsula in Wales. Together with eight others, I am taken through a breathing exercise. It’s rhythmic: we inhale deeply once, exhale slowly, and then repeat. We’re told to focus on the present, just on the things around us, and my gaze fixes on the wooden carcass of Helvetia, shipwrecked in 1887, jutting out of the wet sand on the beach below. Then we close our eyes and focus on what we can hear. We are asked to identify the different sounds, and I find myself relaxing as I release them: there is the wind and, further away, the waves of the sea.
It’s mid-April and I’ve joined Mind Over Mountains, a charity that uses outdoor experiences to support people’s mental health. Founded in 2018 by friends Alex Staniforth, 26, and Chris Spray, 49, who met at a Cheshire village fete, events range from “walk and talks” – which I’m working on – to weekend residencies. These are hosted in places of natural beauty, with other locations including the Peak District, the Lake District and the Brecon Beacons. Itineraries are guided, graded from “easy” to “challenging” (today is “moderate”), showing participants mindfulness techniques, the opportunity to share their stories, and support provided by trained counselors.
At the start of today’s event, we form a small huddle, where boundaries are set: this is a judgment-free space where we can share our experiences, but there is no pressure, nor expectations. I am here, I tell them, because in recent years I have discovered that walking is extremely beneficial for my own mental health. The pandemic ushered in volatility in my life, as it does for many. But nature is a balm: walking in the green or by the water generally makes me feel a little better.
After the first breathing exercise, we begin the seven-mile circular route, which is guided, pausing at the tip of the peninsula, from where we can see the tidal island of Worm’s Head, so named for its serpentine shape (“wyrm” is an Old -English term for “dragon”). I’ve never combined mindfulness exercises with walking, but they work well and create a sense of calm and togetherness in the group.
About an hour later, we descend a steep slope—which requires some scrambling—to Fall Bay, where I speak to Spray, who leads today’s mindfulness practices. “When you walk next to someone who isn’t bothered by their life outside, it’s almost like a special bubble,” he says, looking at the north Devon coast and Lundy Island on the horizon. “People can just reconnect, get a sense of peace and start flowing… the power of Mind Over Mountains brings together a bunch of strangers, all of whom realize that when we weren’t given a handbook on how to live, we do what we can , and none of us is broken.”
When I call Staniforth at his home in Kendal, Cumbria, he explains how the great outdoors has helped him manage his mental health since his first teenage fall hike in the Lake District. All his life he suffered from anxiety, panic attacks, depression and at one point bulimia. “When you’re out in nature, you can put things in perspective,” he says. “It has been scientifically proven that green space and nature improve mood [and] to reduce stress and anxiety. We saw that during the lockdown when everyone went for a walk with all this chaos going on – nature had that calming effect. It is very grounding and takes us away from our problems for a while.” About the impact of Mind Over Mountains he says: “I have seen people suddenly experience a sense of acceptance, a sense of belonging, where they realize that they are not alone.”
We reach the beacon of Rhossili Down, where Spray sees a skylark soaring over the moor, and I speak to Daphne Clifton, another team member. “We need each other, as people,” she says, as we walk side by side. “It’s fascinating to hear each other’s stories. You start to realize connections again, and how we connect as humanity… Do not underestimate the power of the natural world around you.” I agree and note how the lockdown restrictions of the past two years have robbed many of us of the mental health benefits that come with in-person socializing. Being in nature today, with other people, has made me happier.
After a walk along the beach, past the Helvetia shipwreck, we do one last exercise, turning around to look at the Pembrokeshire coast in the distance and envision our future intentions, as we face the uncertainties of life. acknowledge. “That really helped me see that I just need to focus on the floor right in front of me,” says one participant during the debriefing on Zoom a few days later, where we get further support with trained counselors. “That means just keep climbing, one step ahead of the next, and keep going. The theme, from everyone’s stories, was that the future – be it professional or work or family or personal – was not what we expected it to be. And actually that’s okay.”
What I get most out of my time with Mind Over Mountains isn’t that hiking in nature is a quick fix for mental health problems, because I don’t think there is one — and the team stresses that this isn’t about trying to “solve” ” everybody. But it is a satisfying experience. I leave reminded of the pure joy that nature brings into my life, and how much comfort I find in talking and listening to others. That, and I have a few more breathing exercises to add to my repertoire.
Walk and Talks from £39weekend retreats from £195, scholarships available, mindovermountains.org.uk